Political memes

Political memes are much more than simplistic commentary.

Trent M. Kays

Elections are always fascinating events for me. They highlight both the greatness and volatility of democracy. As someone who studies and teaches rhetoric, elections provide ample opportunities to watch civic understandings of the term unfold. Misunderstandings, satire and critiques all form into an odd ball of yarn. The way in which people enacted their political beliefs during an election cycle can border on fanatical.

The posturing of belief ranges from a small bumper sticker on a car to the huge billboard along the highway. They’re almost unavoidable, and unlike some other countries, Americans tend to be lazy voters. Some just don’t care, while others care but think their vote won’t matter. The range of dialogue is outstanding and frightening. Despite the abounding laziness, the 21st century has never provided a better time to reorient one rhetorical dialogue to another.

Political memes offer many things to us. They offer ways in which we can vent our frustration with an election cycle. They offer a chance for us to add levity to serious issues. More importantly, they provide us a moment to critique in the most vicious way. The political memes we see arising out of the recent debates provide us plenty of fodder.

Vice President Joe Biden’s now infamous “Malarkey!” remark in response to some of Rep. Paul Ryan’s debate arguments is a wonderful example. Those who closely follow the election cycle will understand the term if hurled at them. Of course, it meant something before Biden quipped it on national television. It’s an antiquated word and one more at home with my grandfather than on the streets of Lena Dunham’s New York City. That being the case, the word has found new life through Biden’s exasperation and is now enshrined in meme form.

The question becomes, then, does it actually do anything? Yes and no. Memes as moments of rhetorical delivery do offer us just that — a moment. A single meme is not meant to be an overarching narrative. They, instead, bring us a moment serving as a reminder of something that happened. This act of memory, one now offered to us in images or words, eases our own sense of memory. We no longer have to remember the moments that made us laugh or made us mad in the election cycle. Memes will do it for us.

In many ways, the political meme is a perfect commentary for the American voter. The political meme is like a shiny object being pandered to the squirrelly electorate. They offer a chance for the voter to be distracted and to engage with a message that may or may not mean anything. Memes are a sadistic form of cultural critique, and their ease of creation and proclivity is its greatest asset. The way in which a meme spreads has nothing to do with machinery or similar things. It is wholly dependent on a human agent. A meme is simply a funny, critical or thoughtful anecdote until it spreads from one person to the next. Then, it becomes a meme.

So, to whom did Biden’s “Malarkey!” spread? A simple Google search will provide you an answer. Political pundits, talk show hosts, Twitter and Facebook users and others all caught this meme bug. My Facebook feed filled up moments after Biden’s remark. I’ve never seen so many instances of the word “malarkey” show up so quickly. I soon became tired of the word malarkey. It’s a word. Someone said it. Bravo!

Perhaps most egregious in these suddenly created memes and instances of humor was the way some bandied them about. In my feed, many engaged with the “Malarkey!” meme in the same way they post about their breakfast: uncritically. It was simply a humorous outburst from Ole’ Man Biden. But it was much more than that simplistic interpretation. It was a level of honesty not often experienced.

Biden’s outburst reminds us of how corrupt and lost politics has become. In that one moment, Biden was his most honest self. Malarkey. It’s one word and, yet, operates as much more. It is embodied in a meme. We can’t escape it, and it now has a place in our cultural heritage. I don’t know how long it will remain so, and like most memes, it will one day fade. However, for this moment, it is something to behold. Its rhetorical device is one of honesty. Its speaker is Biden, and its home is the Internet.

While Biden is not known for his nuance, the levels of cultural, societal and economic issues inherent in his debate outburst are at once beautiful and terrifying. It is prepossessing in that it shows a politician who has seen it all being frustrated with someone who has seen little. In a way, it is a teaching moment. Still, it is foreboding because it is so easy for some to appropriate the elegance of the meme without understanding the message of the meme. This is both the curse and joy of 21st century discourse.

As a rhetorical device, a meme is culturally significant in that it gives us something we don’t always have: an outlet. We take what someone else did or said and make it our own. Biden retorted “Malarkey!” and I will not forget it. His meme-captured honesty was desperately needed, and that’s no malarkey.